Varanasi (India): Between life & death – Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

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“All of the sacred places of India and all of her sacred waters are here. All of the Gods reside here, attracted by the brilliance of the City of Light”  – Diana Eck, Banaras

This place is Varanasi

Sitting down and recalling my adventure in that Holy city, I can really say that the city stole my heart from the first sight. It made me rethink my existence in this life and put me in an extreme skeptical mood. Without any doubt, Varanasi, up to now, is the only place that left me speechless and shocked. In my opinion, if you haven’t visit Varanasi, you haven’t visited India. Honestly, you haven’t seen anything. When you step on Varanasi you will understand why.

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

There isn’t any middle opinion for the Holy city.  Either you will Love it or hate it.

And…with the both options, it will hunt you forever. 

Varanasi is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh dating to the 11th century B.C. Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites (Burning Ghats) Along the city’s winding streets are some 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, It is known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi”. (source Wikipedia). 

We first came to Varanasi through our travels around India and with very little idea about the city other that supposed to be interesting. Looking back over my notes from those days I notice the shock and exhaustion from our train journey. We arrive very early in the morning, where we meet our driver. Whizzing rickshaw rides, ears resounding with the blasts of car horns, mind spinning with the traffic, crush of rubbish and dirt, dirt, dirt, way too much of dirt. Despite the fact that I have previously visited India Varanasi blew my mind and I was literally in shock. 

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Hotel

Within an hour we find our hotel: A dirty room at the top of an ugly yellow concrete building on the edge of the Assi Ghat with the view to the Ganges river. Our tour guide warned us that the majority of the hotels close to the river are not well maintained but my sister insisted on staying as close as possible to the river. The view rewarded us, it was breathtaking indeed! Soon we discovered that the place is full of monkeys and we got warned that those animals can be really cheeky. 

  • If you prefer a cleaner and in good condition hotel you better stay outside the Ghats area. 
  • Be aware of the monkeys, they are everywhere.

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

1. Stroll around Ghats

We began our exploration of the city. There are 88 Ghats which means stairs that are basically lead down to the Ganges river. As we start to walk along the Main Ghat, we fell, in fact, as we are walking through a gallery of life and death. It is worth to note that despite the fact that the river is considered the Holiest river for Hindus it also the most contaminated. The new Prime Minister of India, Modi, has actually budgeted $340 million dollars to clean up the Ganges. So there is some hope. 

As we drew close, we observed hundreds of people performing their morning rituals, washing clothes bathing and exercising the art of yoga, all inside the river in order to wash away their sins. We could hear the distant sounds of chanting and we could feel the calmness of the place. In that early morning silence, everything about this place was alien to me.People have been living here for 5000 years and It is believed that it is the world’s oldest inhabited city. In fact, it seems that very little changed from the old times. 

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

2. Food time

It’s almost lunch time and we are already starving. Close the Assi Ghat B, Vaatika Cafe seems to have the best pizza and apple pie in the whole city. In fact, pizza and apple pie were a nice relief to our crumbling stomachs. There are numerous restaurants around the city including street food. We avoided street food for obvious reasons. A nice restaurant that we did not try but I heard good opinions is the Organic Bakery Bread Brown which has vegan dishes also. (Not Sponsored) 

  • Vaatika Cafe opening hours daily: 8 am – 10 pm
  • Bakery Bread Brown opening hours daily: 7 am – 10 pm

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

3. Alleyways & Markets

After the ceremony we continued our walk through the Alleyways where you can find huge area of markets and within couples of minutes the scene here will be one of utter chaos with crowded alleyways, dirt everywhere, dead cows, cow poop that you are about to step in at some point, monkeys, dogs, flies, dead bodies carried through without any alarm. Indeed, death is everywhere in the city.

‘Everything ends in this city’ said our tour guide. Hindus believe that after death, the body returns to the spirit. We do not belong to the body, we are not our minds…..A true Hindu believer must end his / her life to this city. 

The next couples of hours were spent roaming around the Markets bargaining at the numerous shops and chatting with people. Everywhere you could see lots of colors and smiles, lots of smiles. We liked the women with their colorful saris and vendors with their merchandises stacked on the small alleyways.

  • You can visit the Alleyways and the Markets any time of the time but it’s preferably after dawn because of the heat. 
  • Do not forget to bargain. 
  • The markets in Varanasi are famous for its silk and ornate jewels

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

4. Aarti Ceremony (Evening Prayers to the Ganges)

There is a theory that if you yearn sincerely for a unique experience in Varanasi, you will find one.

Aarti singers perform the evening ceremony at Sitala Ghat. Varanasi is considered sacred, they perform Aarti in sacred cities. Thousands of locals and tourists are gathered around the Ghat (stairs) or inside the boats offering flowers and magnolia candles on the river. Fire is offered to Lord Shiva and people pray to get blessed, it represents the link between this world and the spirit world.

I am sitting close to the singers and I can feel every vibe of the atmosphere. The chant is a lament, an attempt at gratitude. I’m trying to mimic the voices of the lead singers, thinking that people come here to pray and around the corner, people come here to die and I can’t hold my tears. The ceremony is pure magic.  

It is one of the most spectacular spiritual night I have ever experienced and should not be missed.  

  • Aarti Ceremony starts every day around 6 – 7 pm 
  • To experience the best ceremony is at Dasaswamedh Ghat
  • You can watch the ceremony from the boats or from the Ghats

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

5. Sunrise in Varanasi & Burning Ghats

Like so many travelers we went to see the sunrise along the river and the Burning Ghats. We rose at 5 am and we walked down to the riverfront where we rented a boatman. We were 6 of us (including the boatman) in a pretty small boat. Our tour guide informed us that if we are “lucky” we will see a burning. We’ve got goosebumps all over our bodies and my heart starts pumping too hard. 

The first sunbeams it begins to appear and a magical picture like a postcard begins to reveal its beauty. We are in the middle of the river and the view of the Holy city and the sun is like we stepped into another century. We sat quietly for a quite some time.

Further downstream we moved across other tourist boats until we reach a burning Ghat. It was garbage and crap everywhere and there was a dead cow floating in the middle of the river. We smelled the smoke in the air, a different smell than usual, a smell that up to now comes back into my mind.’You are really lucky. There is a burning happening now’, said our tour guide. As a matter of fact, he is right, the cremation is just in front of us of around 300 meters far.

We felt the tremulous thrill and we stared with open wide eyes. A body wrapped tightly in a white cloth is under a pile of woods and fire. In fact, we could see his feet burning. Into this great destitution, a man was bathing nearby our boat and water splashed onto me. I freaked out!!! I felt like I had a heart attack. Thinking that all the ashes from the burned bodies end to the river my heart stopped for seconds and could not breathe. After seconds I let a scream come out and seconds later l let the words sink in.

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

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The belief is that if you are burned on the bank of the Ganges and in Varanasi specifically, and your ashes are thrown into the river that you will achieve a level of Moksha (means that you will break the cycle of birth and rebirth, you will go to heaven) in the Hindu religion. 

All Hindus (except kids) are burnt after death with the fire of Logwood or Electrical current in Chambers that is run by Government. The rich ones use sandalwood. Their navel remains intact after burning by any method. Only the navel which is made of collagen tissue is taken out from the ash and with proper ritual immersed in rivers. Regarding the kids are covered with sheets and buried directly or inside a coffin in the ground.
 
Not everyone can afford the burning. Those that are not allowed to get burned (very poor ones) are wrapped with sheets and big stones and thrown far onto the river. In fact, it’s common to see decomposed floated bodies into the river. We saw one and we could not believe our eyes.  

It’s worth to mention that during ceremonies you will not observe tears as with tears the soul is prevented from leaving the body. Some see death as a redemption from the sufferings of life as the expect something better in their next life. 

  • Best time for the boat ride is between 5 am – 7 am.
  • Negotiate for the best price with the boatman.
  • If you want to see the burning from the Ghats you need a special permission.

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

6. Tour of Sarnath

It was shortly after an afternoon when we went for Sightseeing to the Sarnath. Despite the fact that Varanasi is a Hindu place, it has Buddhist temples also. It is a big park with temples and it’s the place where Buddha first taught about Dharma.  

  • It’s a nice place to have a picnic.
  • Sarnath is 10km away from Varanasi and has various Buddhist temples and an Archaeological Museum.
  • There are various days trips to Sarnath start early in the morning but you can also spend half day as we did it. 

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

varanasi - india - sarnath - maninio - trip - tour

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

Varanasi (India): Between life & death - www.maninio.com - Best Things to Do

The universality of death here can seem real shocking but it is considered very normal in Varanasi.

I will never forget my first sight of the Holy City and I loved every vibe of it. If a city could be condensed into a small phrase, the one that might work pretty well for is ‘Hovering between Life and Death’ 

This documentary is the best I have seen about Varanasi and it is featuring one of my favorite Photographers Joey L 

Favourite book about Varanasi: Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi

Namaste.

**Disclosure: Some of the links on this post are affiliate links. There are all products I love and recommend. Thank you for your support! 

 

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Varanasi between life and death - www.maninio.com - Best things to do

Varanasi between life and death - www.maninio.com - Best things to do

 

22 Comments

  1. laurenepears

    I’m heading to India in November, and Varanasi is right at the top of places I hope to visit during my time there! It looks so beautiful and interesting.

  2. Your photos are incredible. They depict local life so well. Thanks so much for sharing about this city since I feel like many bloggers have not written about it.

  3. Nice to read your post. Great photos.

  4. Beautiful! Varanasi sounds like such a unique place – my boyfriend just went there a month ago and loved it.

  5. Sounds like a crazy experience!

  6. You are right… this city crates an impact on your mind either you love or hate Varanasi. Despite all dirt and chaos, it is a city I like to visit again.
    There are nice and clean hostels but as you mentioned, these are not close to ghats. The cremation ceremonies goes on 24×7 and for me watching it for long with the narrative by our guide was a bit disturbing but then that’s how it is.
    Brown Bakery was one of my favorite place, infect we had a counter of them in our hostel.
    Great post, you reminded of my trip.

  7. Your stay in Varanasi sounds like a great experience. I have never been to India but everyone that goes loves it. I like the atmosphere of your photos.

  8. Honestly, India is such a large country that there is no one India to mention as “having not been there so having not seen”. The snowy peaks of Himalaya in Darjeeling, the endless dirt in Kolkata and the monuments and golden triangle around Delhi. Every one of those places is very Indian, and every one of those quite different. Same as people in Darjeeling look nothing like those in Kolkata, your India of Varanasi is India, but no the same India I saw in West Bengal.

    • Hello, thanks for your message:) I agree with you, every part of India is different but despite the fact I have visited differents parts of it I felt that Varanasi was something special and very different from the other areas.

  9. Looks like such a crazy unique experience. When I went to India we considered it in the planning, but it was slightly out of our way and we didn’t had much time …. Also to be honest I am not sure how well prepared I would have been for such a city ….

  10. Wow! Thank you for writing such a detailed and informative post about visiting Varanasi! It really sounds and looks like you had an incredibly memorable experience. There are so many unique things to see and do – I think I would like to visit too.

  11. Wow, this looks like a very exotic and interesting place to explore. I truly hope to visit Varanasi one day. Thank you for sharing. Your photos are beautiful.

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